The luminous worlds of Patricia McKillip
Tuesday, May 17, 2022
I'm still reeling from the news of Patricia McKillip's death last week. She was only 74, and I thought we'd have more time with her, more wonderful tales flowing from her pen, and I simply cannot reconcile myself to a world without Patricia in it.
I admired Pat professionally, loved her personally, and have been profoundly influenced by her artistically. From the moment I first stumbled upon her work (The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, 1974) her books have been lodestars for me -- demonstrating, over and over again, the timeless power of myth and fairy tale tropes when wielded by a master writer. And a master of fantasy she certainly became: one of the very best of our age, as well as one of the most influential in the mythopoeic end of the fantasy field.
"Writing was something I fell into," she once said, "much like Alice down the rabbit-hole, when I was fourteen. I sat down one day to write myself a story instead of reading one, and thirty-two pages later -- pencil and lined paper table -- I finished my tale and realized that my predictable world had expanded wildly, enormously, with endlessly diverging and intriguing paths running every which way into an unknown I suddenly knew existed. Having ended one story (which is locked away, guarded by dragons and evil-eyed basilisks, and will never see the light of day if I have anything to say about it), I wanted to start all over again on another."
In another autobiographical piece from 2004 (and heavens, I wish there were more of them) she noted:
"A friend asked me recently, 'What inspires you to write?'
"She is a writer herself, so I knew she wasn't asking me, 'Where do you get your ideas?' She would know that ideas are as random as shooting stars; they come while you're cleaning the bathtub, or watching Four Weddings and a Funeral for the ninth time, or in the morning when the last bit of your dream is fraying away, just before you open your eyes. You see it then, what you've been searching for all these weeks or months, clear as day; you look at it and think, 'Oh. Yeah,' and open your eyes. That wasn't what she was asking. And that was why I couldn't answer, I could only sit and stare at her with my mouth hanging gracelessly open, because all the answers that sprang immediately to mind answered the question she hadn't asked....
"The question was about drive, motivation. What possessed you to write eight or ten entirely different fantasies in ten or twelve years? What compels you? How could you? Why would you want to? Ever since I was young, the imagination, like the raw stuff of magic, has seemed to me a kind of formless, fluid pool of enormous possibility, both good and bad, dangerous and powerful, very much like the magma in a volcano. And I envisioned myself sitting on top of this mountain of magma, spinning it into endless words, visions, imagery, controlled and useful, to keep it from bursting out in its primitive state to devastate the landscape. At first, I felt very precariously balanced on top of my private volcano, spinning word and image into tales as quickly as I could to keep up with the unstable forces I was trying to harness. Lately I've been feeling rather at home there. The magma level has gone down a bit; I've done some satisfying work. I can slow down, maybe, take a longer time to think about what I want to make now. What I set out to do about fifteen years ago was to write a series of novels that were like paintings in a gallery by the same artist. Each work is different, but they are all related to each other by two things: they are all fantasy, and they are all by the same person. That's all I wanted to do. And now I'm reaching the end of that series.
"I have no idea what comes next."
What came next, of course, were more brilliant books (Od Magic, The Bell at Sealey Head, The Bards of Bone Plain, Kingfisher), three dazzling short story collections (Harrowing the Dragon, Wonders of the Invisible World, Dreams of the Distant Shores), and a handful of other fine stories. She kept shaping that magma into wise and wondrous tales, and it's hard to believe there will be no more. But she has left us shelves full of books to read, and re-read, talk about, and share, and as long as we do, then the magic is still flowing and she is still with us.
A few years ago, I spent two months re-reading her entire backlist (in order of publication); this week, I'm starting over again, from The House on Parchment Street and The Throme of the Erril of Sherill to her most recent stories. I know I'll find new depths in them, as I always do. I know I'll continue to learn from her. Perhaps some of you might join me by re-visiting a favourite novel or story, or seeking out a tale you missed along the way. For anyone who wants to join in: just let me know what you're reading in the Comments below this post, and then share any thoughts you have about the reading when you are done.
"At it's best," she wrote, "fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies at the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven't heard the end of it yet."
No, indeed we have not.
Some suggested reading to be found online:
"Women in SF & Fantasy" by Patricia A. McKillip (The Fantasy Cafe, 2013)
"Revisiting Patricia A. McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld" by Molly Templeton (Tor.com, 2017)
"Gingerbread Bricks, Cherry-Eating Cats, and Other Culinary Disasters" by Patricia A. McKillip (Tor.com, 2018)
"I Write Fantasy Because of Patricia McKillip's The Riddlemaster of Hed" by Julie E. Czerneda (Tor.com, 2021)
I also highly recommended listening to the Coode Street Podcast, Episode 579: Remembering Patricia A. McKillip, in which writers Ellen Kushner and E. Lily Yu discuss Patricia's life and work with the podcast's hosts, Gary Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan (May 16, 2022). To hear Pat herself describe her writing process, listen to her interviewed on The Agony Column Podcast Newsreport (April 20, 2008).
The remarkable art in this post is by Kinuko Y. Craft, the cover artist for many McKillip books, whose jewel-like paintings perfectly capture the luminous worlds contained within each volume.
The quotes above come from "Gingerbread Bricks, Cherry-Eating Cats, and Other Culinary Disasters" by Patricia A. McKillip (Tor.com, 2018); "What Inspires Me," Patricia McKillip's Guest of Honor speech, Wiscon 28, 2004; and The Writers Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books, 2002). All rights reserved. The photograph of Pat is by Patti Perret, from The Faces of Fantasy (Tor Books, 1996); all rights reserved by the photographer.